After a two year hiatus, James Levine made an exuberant return for his global audiences leading Verdi's final opera, "Falstaff." Director Robert Carson updated the Shakespearean-inspired comedy to a vibrant 1950s setting.
The escapades of Sir John Falstaff were portrayed buoyantly by the Italian baritone, Ambrogio Maestri, who has interpreted the character over 200 times. Maestri's comfort in both the vocal and manneristic aspects of the role were apparent; despite Falstaff's overindulgent and vain nature, Maestri faceted his character with endearing amicability and his assured sound made Falstaff's misplaced feelings of narcissism all the more harmless.
If there was one trait that each of the opera's characters was brimming with, it was a playful smugness. In their charming '50s costumes, Angela Meade, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Stephanie Blythe, and Lisette Oropesa, in the respective roles of Alice Ford, Meg Page, Mistress Quickly, and Nannetta, concocted their plan of righteous fury on Falstaff in sassy and stylish fashion. Their ensembles, which the opera is chock-full of, were steady and vivacious, but each woman also brought a certain flavor to her solo singing. Meade was agile and particularly bright in both voice and demeanor, Cano sang warmly, Blythe with power and an ironic bite, and Oropesa brought sweet lyricism and tenderness to her youthful character.
Falstaff's four male adversaries, Ford, Pistola, Bardolfo, and Dr. Caius, sung by Franco Vassallo, Christian Van Horn, Keith Jameson, and Carlo Bosi respectively, were not quite as neat as their female counterparts during the quick ensembles. Jameson and Van Horn were naturals in the roles of Falstaff's ex-cohorts and drew laughter with their every utterance.
Vassallo sang the opera's more serious role. Ford's raging jealousy brings him to his knees for the most dramatic and Verdi-esque moment of the opera, "È sogno o realtà," which Vassallo sang with turbulent passion and conviction. Vassallo's baritone voice, like Maestri's, was refined, but its darker hue brought urgency to his aggressive lines.
"Falstaff" is not Verdi's most captivating score, but it is one of his most sophisticated. The music facilitates the comedy in both a subtextual and slapstick capacity and thereby calls for great voices as well as great actors. Fortunately, each member of this enormous cast possessed the vocal fortitude and comedic sense for a highly successful performance. Whether or not this is Verdi's masterpiece remains debatable. Despite the complexity of the music, little of it is memorable, and even with a top cast, the opera contains significant lulls.
Paul Steinberg and Brigitte Reiffenstuel's glamorous sets and costumes brought vitality and a hollow grandeur to the first two acts. The third act contained moments of vocal brilliance, particularly Meade's "Quando il rintocco della mezzanotte" narrative, but much of the scene's power was lost because the cast was swallowed by the pitch-black stage.
In the pit, Levine's expertise with the opera was immediately evident. He brought "Falstaff" to life with facility and lead the immense cast through treacherous ensembles to great success. The final fugue resounded with particular joviality and ended the work fittingly.